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Baltimore’s Complete Streets, Decades in the Making

This week, the Baltimore City Council passed a Complete Streets bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that strengthens existing legislation and establish accountability measures for Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation (DOT). Complete streets are streets that are designed to be used by all users, not just motorized ones. Generally, complete streets include design features such as bike lane, wider sidewalks, and treatments to help transit move faster like bus bulbs or bus lanes. Many cities across the country have implemented this type of transportation plan to guide local Departments of Transportation on construction and design principles that prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.

Complete streets are based on a notion of equity for residents. Although roads in this country are designed to get motorized traffic moving as quickly and efficiently as possible, many roads aren’t just used by motorists. In fact, lots of roads have been overbuilt for motorists, providing as many lanes as possible while pedestrians and cyclists are constrained into smaller and often dangerous spaces adjacent to speeding traffic. A complete streets policy would shift away from the notion of prioritizing all roads for motorized traffic.

Historically, Baltimore has been an example of what not to do when it comes to complete streets and transportation equity. In the 1950’s, some of Baltimore’s predominantly Black communities were summarily destroyed to build an expressway to nowhere that has affected West Baltimore ever since. Couple that with other bad transportation planning, such as an unconnected rail transit system, or the patchwork of bike lanes that disappoint residents regardless of their cycling ability. Getting around Baltimore City has been challenging not just for motorists but even more so for those that rely on transit, cycling and walking. But more recently, Baltimore has been trying to right the wrongs of the past. In 1997, then Mayor Kurt Schmoke created a Bicycle Advisory Committee to hear and address the needs of Baltimore’s burgeoning cycling community. In 2009, the committee worked with City Council and then Mayor Sheila Dixon’s office to craft legislation that would require that Baltimore’s Department of Transportation prioritize multi-modal transportation options. At that time, the legislation was heralded and Baltimore became a pioneer for complete streets.

However, the legislation lacked specificity and contained many loopholes that various City DOT Directors during the years have been able to exploit to avoid following the spirit of the legislation. In fact, only two portions of Baltimore, Southeast and the South Baltimore Gateway, have a complete streets plan. Since the legislation has passed, residents have had a patchwork of discontinuous transportation plans without much regard for non-motorized traffic. Yet, more than a third of households in Baltimore City don’t have access to a car and in many of the City’s long-segregated communities up to 80% of residents don’t have access to a car.  Meanwhile, while the City has embarked on a new cycling plan, it has been met with resistance in many parts of the City due to a lack of public comment and the reduction of parking and street widths.

This process toward complete streets has been less controversial in other cities, including Boston and Philadelphia. Each of these cities has targeted their complete streets program on reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist involved injuries and deaths on their streets. That prioritization has shifted the conversation in a productive manner. Below are two recommendations Baltimore should consider implementing that are included in Boston and Philadelphia’s plan:

Regional Coordination

Both Boston and Philadelphia’s plans have a transit first component. Transit first is the notion that transit vehicles and users should be the first priority on city streets. Although similar to Baltimore in the sense that each of these cities do not control nor operate public transit within the City, both cities have worked to improve coordination between the city’s DOT and the public transit provider.

Boston plans on doing this by hiring additional staff to coordinate with the regional transit provider MBTA. The City of Boston in its Go Boston 2030 plan has ensured that every resident is within a 10-minute walk from a rail station or major bus route, in addition to a carshare or bikeshare location, in the hopes up increasing transit ridership, improving connectedness of the city, and making transit more reliable by 2030.

Philadelphia has a transit first plan incorporated in its new CONNECT plan which will ensure that the City prioritizes transit as the first mode of choice for residents and visitors. Like Baltimore, ⅓ of Philadelphia’s residents are car-free and yet ridership on SEPTA, the regional transit provider, has fallen during the past six years. Philadelphia plans on improving its bus service as the most efficient and affordable way to improve mass transit.

Community Engagement

Boston also has been a model of public comment, incorporating resident’s ideas into its new transit plan. The City embarked on a listening campaign and received more than 5,000 comments from residents, business owners, and visitors to the City on the question “What’s your question about getting around Boston in the future?” The City used public meetings, social media, and a “Question Truck” that visited 15 neighborhoods to ensure that a diversity of voices were heard. Once the City received all the comments staff members were able to distil comments into nine different themes, such as access, affordability, and safety, which guided the next phase of the public comment section, the Visioning Lab. The two-day session enabled the public to learn about the themes of the new plan. More than 600 people attended and gave comments.

Boston’s public commenting took about six months but has allowed for the creation of a plan that has the support of many residents because their comments were incorporated. Boston’s public commenting model ensures a more equitable plan by including the opinions of residents across a broad swath of the City and not just the usual participants.

Although Baltimore’s regional transit provider, the MTA, has already redesigned its bus network, there has been a need for better coordination with the City’s DOT in order to make the new system work with new bus lanes in the Downtown core and with transit signal prioritization along the City’s arterial routes. While Councilman Dorsey’s bill requires the creation of a coordinating committee, more effort should be made to incorporate comments from the public at large into the final version of the plan. Especially when one realizes that the coordinating committee is made up of relevant agency heads without any public involvement.

Coordination between Baltimore City DOT and the MTA has improved to the point where bus lanes have been installed in the downtown core. Yet more coordination must be conducted to ensure that coordinated transit improvements happen across the City. Many groups in Baltimore are advocating for a more equitable transportation vision for the City for a variety of reasons, including access to jobs and education, as well as economic development. Each of these groups needs to have a seat at the table when it comes to designing the City’s vision because with their support more buy-in, across not just the city but the region, will become attainable. But it doesn’t just stop with having the usual interested groups at the table, ordinary residents that live, work and commute through the city need to have a seat at the table as well. Baltimore was once seen as a model for complete streets and with this legislation it can be true again!

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